While much is made of the “assaults and affrays” that occurred in Congress during the run-up to the Civil War, the precedents are filled with other incidents that took place during other periods in our history. Most of these are one-on-one confrontations between members over perceived insults and heated rhetoric. For instance, in 1838 “warm words and an assault having passed between two members” gave rise to “great disorder in the Committee of the Whole.” The Speaker took the chair…to bring the House into order. The House then required the two members to apologize “for violating its privileges and offending its dignity.”
The disorder and even threatened violence in Congress today does not begin to approach the tumult of the Civil War era. Still, it is a matter of great concern as it mirrors a coarsening of public discourse and sharpening of partisan divisions. The perils of a representative democracy are always exposed when policy differences and personal disagreements combine to ignite and the usual norms of institutional dignity and comity are ignored.
One of the principal challenges of the new House Speaker should be to find ways to re-educate members and instill in them a greater respect for the institution over their petty grievances, personal enmities and performative proclivities.